Friday, August 23, 2019

Be joyful - be productive

Another source of joy in the Lord is one that we've touched on before: God wants us to experience the joy of productivity in our service for Him.
Let's refresh our memories of chapter 6:
The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.16 Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:15-16)
Ezra goes on to note that the celebrations continued:
For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. (v 22)
So, the temple was finally finished (I'm putting on my best "I'm-the-narrator" voice here for you) about twenty years after the foundation was laid -- it was about four years after the new, new beginning, when Haggai and Zechariah had begun their ministries. The scholars disagree on the dimensions given in verse three of the chapter -- the dimensions here in Ezra seem to exceed those of Solomon's temple. His was noted as 20 cubits wide, 60 cubits long, and 30 cubits high. (I always wonder about cubits, don't you? I ran the numbers and got this: Solomon's temple was approximately 30 feet wide, 88 feet long, and 44 feet high.  And for y'all who utilize the metric system, Solomon's temple was approximately 9 meters by 27 meters, and 13.5 in height.) It just helps me to visualize the temple. (Grin)

Now, let's turn back around and get out of the weeds here. The reason for the scholars' puzzled looks and head-scratching is that if this temple was larger, it's kinda hard to figure out the disappointment expressed by the old-timers in chapter three. As we stated a couple of weeks ago, it could have been tears because the foundation was being laid and they were remembering the glory of the old temple. The foundation laid was in the midst of a ruined city; they might have been at the point of tears because they wondered if things could ever be like they were before......
Anyway, since the length isn't given in chapter six, some have theorized that the original text has been corrupted.  I kinda discount that theory -- to me it makes more sense that these dimensions were the maximum that Cyrus said he would support and approve. The actual building could have been smaller, and that would account for the older Jews' disappointed faces. Whatever the correct explanation is, we know that the temple was completed -- and that the people rejoiced at its dedication.

In today's world, we can and should rejoice at the completion of a building project, a ministry being established, the completion of a week of backyard Bible studies, etc.  There's even greater joy, however, when we experience the Lord using us in the building of His kingdom.
Are we witnessing?
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10)
Are we working to bring the lost in to hear the gospel?
 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (Luke 15:32)
Are we investing our financial blessings?
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.  (II Corinthians 9:7-8)
Are we investing our time and experience?
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58)
Working hard for the Lord will mean that we bear fruit in our lives, and that we'll experience joy:
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples....I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:8, 11)
A recipe for service? For the joy that comes from working in God's kingdom? I can't think of a better recipe than that given by Paul to the Philippians:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:(Philippians 2:1-5)
We can not only be joyful because of God's providence in our lives, and not only because of His providing our needs, but also because we are working for Him.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Be joyful - God provides!

Chapter six of Ezra also teaches us that we should find joy in the fact that God provides for us. Yesterday, we studied more of the providential care He sends; we saw that He can move circumstances and even the hearts of rulers to carry out His purposes.
Today, let's look at the material provisions that He sends.

Why do you suppose that Tattenai and his minions diligently carried out the king's decree? Was it because they thought it was the best idea ever? They thought it was awesome for these former slaves to return and re-establish the temple and the surrounding city? Because of the goodness of their hearts? Well, they just may have been pretty mellow, "you're my brother" kind of people, but the main reason that I see for their cooperation was in the king's decree -- they didn't like to think about the alternative:
Furthermore, I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it. And for this crime their house is to be made a pile of rubble. (Ezra 6:11)
Pretty effective motivation, eh?
I think so!
Darius set the punishment high. And God also used Darius to provide the materials for the temple. He moved the king to provide the animals and other items for the sacrifices, too.
You see, King Darius was trying, as we say today, to "cover all the bases." He wanted to appease and please YAHWEH by providing materially for the temple. He was in the habit of asking all the people in the lands that he conquered to pray to their gods on behalf of him and his sons.  So he asked that of the Jewish people, as well. (v 10)
God used the king's superstitions to provide for His people!
I don't guess that the Lord routinely uses pagan governments as the main source of material support for His church. But He can. However, He provides, whether through tax breaks from the government (for charitable, non-profit organizations) or through generous giving of believers and unbelievers alike, it is God Who provides for His church.
It's our responsibility to wait upon Him through faith and prayer. And when we see God's provision, we should show our joy.
Paul sets an example for us in II Corinthians. In his letter, he is bubbling with enthusiasm - the Macedonians have made a generous gift for their brothers and sisters in Christ, the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Paul points out that when we give generously, we not only meet the needs of others, but we cause overflowing thanksgiving to God, and the result is that God is glorified:
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (II Corinthians 9:12-13)
We can rejoice daily in how the work of the church is provided for, and we can also rejoice in how He provides for our personal needs. There are approximately 170 verses in the Bible that tell of the ways that God provides for us. (Hmmm, maybe there's a study there for us!)
Philippians 4 puts it very succinctly:
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (v 19)
Prosperity-seekers may be always looking for more money or fancier possessions to arrive, but we should take a closer look at what He desires to provide for us.....

Do we think we are good parents or siblings? Providing well for the needs of those we love? God is the Best. Parent. Ever. He never gives us what He knows would harm us, and His purpose is to help us develop Christlikeness. We should not perceive Him as a heavenly source of material possessions because acquiring things is just not the fundamental goal of this life!

God differentiates between our needs and our wants because as He tells us, where our treasure is, our heart is also (Matthew 6:21). This world is, after all, not our home; our focus should be on eternal life, even as we are living this mortal one.

As the Best Parent, God is focused on every part of our being -- spirit, soul, and body, too. The ways that He provides for us are beyond anything we can ask or imagine:
  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
His guidance and shepherding care will do more for us that we can ever achieve on our own. He encourages us to seek Him in an intimate, obedient relationship through conversation (prayer) and submission. Our dependence on Him is affirmed each time that we pray:
Give us today our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)
And He told us not to worry about food or clothing; He knows our needs!
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (Matthew 6:25)
Long before Christ walked on this earth, Jeremiah pointed to the covenant relationship that God desires:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LordI will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
And the way to have that relationship (and His provision) is by seeking first His kingdom and righteousness:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
The Psalmist notes the part we play in God's provision, too:
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;    the Lord bestows favor and honor;no good thing does he withhold    from those whose walk is blameless. (Psalm 84:11)
(Other translations say it, "those who walk uprightly." Either way, this is a good reminder of the role we play in God's providing for us.
As we have seen, many of these verses relate to the daily, physical needs of life. There are others that refer to the needs of our soul and spirit. I hope you will take a few moments and look these up and read them aloud for encouragement:
1. He provides us with comfort (II Corinthians 1:4)
2. He provides peace (John 14:27)
3. He provides power and self discipline (II Timothy 1:7)
4. He provides love (I John 4:9-11)
We even have the assurance that His love and direction in our lives began before conception! What a gift to know that He's been involved and loved us from the very start!
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased... (Galatians 1:15)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
Even God's creation, which is dependent upon Him, proves to us that He provides.
He made the moon to mark the seasons,    and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night,    and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey    and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away;    they return and lie down in their dens.
 Then people go out to their work,    to their labor until evening. How many are your works, Lord!    In wisdom you made them all;    the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:19-24)
The sun that comes up every morning, the rain that falls, the breezes that refresh us . . . all of these are things that our loving God provides for us.

Rejoice in His providing for us!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Be joyful in God's providence for us

It's a word with a world of meanings.
It's not just about the fact that God controls and plans things, but also that He provides for our needs.

Many people are familiar with the beloved verse in Romans:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NIV)
Don't get me wrong; I'm not espousing a prosperity gospel here . . . there are actually two conditions in that verse - loving God and having responded to the Spirit's call -- and it doesn't say that when He works for good it's going to be Easy Street, either.
That's all another story....
For today, let's concentrate on "all things." It means "all things," OK? (Grin) Bad things, and good things, lovely warm and fuzzy things, and hurtful things, too.
God is never out of control. Satan can do "his darnedest," as my grandma used to say, but even the evil that seems to be tearing the world apart is working toward a final purpose.
We can't see it yet.
But we know that God allows things for a reason and that His plans are good.
It must be frustrating for Satan. (Grin)
No matter what he does, he finds that his schemes and plans are stopped, and something good (must make him shudder) happens in the end.

We can see many examples of His providence in chapter six of Ezra . . . remember Tattenai? He sent his letter to Darius, expecting the king to respond with order to "stop the work at once!" God's providence is seen in the fact that they found the decree from eighteen years before amongst all the other laws, regulations and decrees from Cyrus' reign. And the scholars tell us that they didn't find it in Babylon - they located it in the fortress of Ecbatana, which was Cyrus' summer residence!

God's providence is also seen because Darius did not say, "shut it down! I don't care what the guy before me said..." Instead, he told Tattenai to leave them alone AND to fund the project:
Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you other officials of that province, stay away from there.Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site.Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God:Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop.Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and olive oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail, (Ezra 6:7-9)
And here's another remarkable part - he also provided motivation to make sure these things happened:
Furthermore, I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it. And for this crime their house is to be made a pile of rubble. 12 May God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem.
I Darius have decreed it. Let it be carried out with diligence. (v 11-12)
God's providential care is noted again when Ezra wrote that the Lord "had turned the heart of the king"  . . . in verse 22. He wanted to remind the people that it was God's hand that moved in the situation.
Solomon said much the same thing in Proverbs:
In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water    that he channels toward all who please him. (Proverbs 21:1)
And in Daniel we read:
All the peoples of the earth    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases    with the powers of heaven    and the peoples of the earth.No one can hold back his hand    or say to him: “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
Let's apply this to our lives today . . .
Do we see (really see) and rejoice in God's providential care for us in every small thing? Not just the major things that happen to us?
Jesus told us that even a sparrow that falls to the ground is known by the Father. He told us that God knows the number of hairs on our heads (and as I age, I'm sure He is kept busy by that changing number). No sacrilege intended, just sayin'. 
Because of that, we should not fear.
We should trust Him.
 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:31)
Let's end our study today with a favorite and familiar Psalm. This will surely remind us to rejoice in God's providence for us:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—    where does my help come from?
 My help comes from the Lord,    the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—    he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel    will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—    the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day,    nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm    he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going    both now and forevermore.  (Psalm 121)
Thank you, Lord!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Verses that inspire

Recently, I've been camped out in Psalm 91. Some of you know this because I've corresponded with you. (Grin) There's so much to learn and to rejoice over in this little Psalm!

I wanted to share some thoughts about verse fourteen:
Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him;I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name." (v 14, NASB)
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. (v 14, NIV)
I've said before how helpful it can be to truly broaden our understanding of verses -- to compare them in different translations. That's why I placed both the NASB and the NIV translations of verse fourteen up there.

Those are awe-inspiring promises from our Father God, are they not? Deliverance, rescue, protection, security . . . why does He promise this? What must we do to receive these wonders?

Well, the first thing is that we love Him. That's the first phrase of the verse. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might . . . if we love Him, we will keep His commandments . . . all of those verses come to mind.

But I'd like to focus on the last portion of the verse. One translation says "he has known My name." And the other says "he acknowledges My name."

This is what came to my mind.
I'm an old movie buff. I had a mental picture of a man, the main character of the movie, nattily dressed in a suit and fedora. He knows the name of the person he's passing on the city sidewalk, so he raises his hand in a casual gesture and touches the rim of his hat. No stopping to chat. No real engagement. He knows the person. Knows his name.

I also had a mental picture of a similar movie character, who couldn't be bothered even with a hand gesture. He "acknowledges" the presence of the person he knows with a quick, curt, nod of the head.

I don't think this is what the Psalmist has in mind, do you? (Grin)
I think the Psalmist must have had the latest dictionary of the day open at his side. The Merriam Webster of his day. Because when I search Merriam Webster now on my computer, I get some in-depth concepts for the word "acknowledge."

I believe that the Psalmist would have agreed with the three concepts I see on my screen. . . .
First, to acknowledge God's name means to "recognize the rights, authority, or status of" His claim on our lives as a holy God.
For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27)
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Romans 9:20-21)
Second, Merriam Webster tells us that "acknowledge" means "to disclose knowledge of or agreement with." In order for us to acknowledge God, we must agree with Him about our sins.  The scholars say in I John, the word "confess" carries with it not just our speaking our sins and asking for forgiveness, but also the concept of agreeing with God about our sinfulness:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)
Lastly, the dictionary tells us that "acknowledge" also means to "express gratitude or obligation for." Certainly after we have heart knowledge of God's authority, and we agree with Him about our sins, we will want to express gratitude for His saving grace!
But I will sacrifice to YouWith the voice of thanksgiving.That which I have vowed I will pay.Salvation is from the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9)
O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;For His lovingkindness is everlasting. (I Chronicles 16:34)
but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15:57)
I hope that if a verse or a passage has blessed you recently, that you will leave a comment and share!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Being joyful in the Lord - Ezra 6

When we think of the Puritans in early America, what is our first (and probably longest lasting) take away?
Long faces.

I'm here to tell you - that's not right!
We have the impression that they put a little too much emphasis on the duty and obedience of the Christian life, and they were pretty legalistic, to boot.
And all too often, we view God as a Puritan in a picture; we see Him as a stern killjoy Who doesn't want anyone to get too carried away; He doesn't want anyone to have a good time in life.
In fact, it's actually a false caricature that Puritans were totally against joy and pleasure. It was the Puritans who said, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever!"
And guess what?
Our Father God is not a killjoy, either!

I expect that most of us would say to glorify God is high on our list of priorities.
How high is the pursuit of joy?
Is it nice to pursue?
Is it necessary?
John Piper has said in his book Desiring God that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. If glorifying Him is our most important goal, then finding satisfaction and joy in God must be a purposeful strategy. If we don't possess the "fullness of joy" in God, then we are not glorifying Him as He deserves.

The joy that the Lord gives to His people is the theme of our chapter this week - Ezra 6. Remember how in chapter five, Tattenai, the governor, had confronted the Jewish people with whether or not they had the proper permissions to rebuild the temple? Because God's eye was upon them, Tattenai was moved to send a question to King Darius, but allow the work to continue.

In chapter six, we read that Darius (or his lackeys, I guess!) makes a search and finds the decree of Cyrus in the old records. He respects that decree and he sends back word that the work should continue.
He even includes a ruling that the work should be supported financially! He underwrites the entire project with a wave of his hand! So, the temple was completed in 515 BC, and our chapter this week notes that the Lord's people gathered to joyfully celebrate and dedicate the new temple.
Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (v 16)
After that, they celebrated the Passover and after that, the Feast of Unleavened Bread "with joy."
For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, (v 22a)
Ezra explains the source of their joy:
because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. (v 22b)
Joy, happiness, gladness in the Lord - these are not unimportant! In fact, they are major themes in the Bible! Way back in the history of the Jewish people, Moses told them they should seek a place to worship the Lord and that they would rejoice:
There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:7)
Moving into the Psalms, we see many joyful verses . . .
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.     Worship the Lord with gladness;    come before him with joyful songs. (Psalm 100:1-2)
But let all who take refuge in you be glad;    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,    that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (Psalm 5:11)
There are so many! We could list many more, but let's move into the New Testament and see what our Savior had to say about joy and rejoicing:
"rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20b)
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:11)
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:21)
Paul told us in Philippians to "rejoice... always" (4:4) and then listed joy as the second fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in believers. (Galatians 5:22)
Peter said that:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, (I Peter 1:8)
And of course, John pictures the saints rejoicing throughout eternity in Revelation. (Chapter 19)
We've only touched the surface; there are so many verses that talk about joy, rejoicing, and gladness! In fact, a famous line in a book (and a movie) goes thusly:
"If God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it - some." From Pollyanna, by Ellen H. Porter
All of this to say . . . joy in the Lord is not optional. It's not unimportant. God wants us to be glad. It's the very essence of our Christian faith. We're going to focus on this in the coming days. Hope you will read along!